Potassium is an electrolyte, meaning it conducts electricity within the body. Potassium is essential for the proper functioning of nerve and muscle cells, especially the heart muscle. People ingest potassium through food. A potassium deficiency, also known as hypokalemia can occur for a number of reasons. Symptoms of hypokalemia include abnormal heart rhythms, constipation, muscle breakdown, fatigue and paralysis.
Certain antibiotics can cause a potassium deficiency. These include gentamicin, amphotericin B and carbenicillin, according to National Institutes of Health. People who are at greater risk for potassium deficiencies should speak with their physicians about choosing a different antibiotic. If other antibiotic choices are not an option, physicians can often recommend increasing dietary potassium or a potassium supplement.
While some kidney diseases can cause the body to hold on to potassium, other kidney diseases can actually keep the body from retaining potassium. People with hyperaldosteronism, a condition in which the body produces too much aldosterone, can have low potassium levels. People with Fanconi syndrome, a disease where the kidney doesn’t absorb certain substances, such as potassium, will often have decreased potassium levels.
Eating disorders, such as bulimia, can affect electrolyte balances, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center. Bulimia is an illness in which people binge on food and then purge using laxatives or vomiting to avoid gaining weight. Constant vomiting can cause dehydration and cause a decrease in potassium levels. Long-term binging and purging can lead to severe potassium deficiencies and potentially cause heart attack and fatal arrhythmias.
Diuretics are commonly prescribed to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, glaucoma and congestive heart failure. The Mayo Clinic explains that diuretics rid the body of excess salt and water by making the kidneys put more salt into the urine, and water goes with it. Certain diuretics such as furosimide can cause a decrease in potassium levels. Physicians will often recommend increasing dietary potassium and periodic blood chemistry tests to monitor blood levels of electrolytes like potassium.
Excessive sweating can occur for many reasons. Heavy exercise, high fevers or heavy work outdoors in high temperatures can all cause increased sweating. The National Institutes of Health explains that sweat contains electrolytes and excessive sweating can lead to low potassium levels. People should avoid working outside in high heat if possible and remember to hydrate frequently with water or electrolyte replacement drinks such as Gatorade.